When he couldn’t bear the weight of the world and news of the death of his friend, B Jeyamohan ran away from his home. He couldn’t believe someone so close to him would be gone just like that.
It was 1981, and he was just 19.
Jeyamohan roamed all over India for a few years, wearing ochre, travelling ticketless in trains, eating what he could find, and rubbing shoulders with sadhus, beggars, pickpockets and the destitute.
He finally settled down in 1985, and came in close contact with left wing writers and intellectuals. He also began writing short stories and essays, and by 1987, had established himself in the world of Tamil literature.
Providing him with much of the material for his literary journey were his experiences during the few years roaming; for instance, his time in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvannamalai and Pazhani regions, where he spent his days as a beggar, took shape in a novel titled Ezhaam Ulagam, published in 2007.
Ezhaam Ulagam was adapted into an acclaimed film, Naan Kadavul (I am God) in 2009, which won a National Film Award.
And now, the novel has been translated into English, and titled The Abyss.
The Abyss: A sublime work
Released by Juggernaut Books on 10 April, the deft English translation is by writer and translator Suchitra Ramachandran, who hails from Madurai but currently lives in Switzerland.
The Abyss is Ramachandran’s first full-length translated work.
Ramachandran first read Ezhaam Ulagam in 2015, around the time she discovered Jeyamohan. “I was trying to read everything he had written,” she told South First.
“But Ezhaam Ulagam was a difficult novel to get through. I found the world it portrayed unpleasant, difficult to digest.”
The novel’s protagonist, Pothivelu Pandaram, is a god-fearing family man who trades in beggars.
But even though he ill-treats the beggars he “owns” and considers them mere “items”, Pandaram is a protective father to his three daughters at home and has kept aside ample money to pay their dowries.
In her first attempt at reading Ezhaam Ulagam, Ramachandran sensed the psychological difficulty of discovering the side of man that enslaves others and prolongs their suffering.
She could barely finish the novel.
“I think all great novels have a barrier you have to cross before they allow you in. An initiation of sorts,” she says.
To Ramachandran, “encountering and accepting this feeling of disgust” was critical to discovering “the novel in its full depth”.
In 2021, she read the novel again, this time on the request of Tamil writer A Muttulingam, who asked her whether she could translate it into English.
“I said I wanted to read the novel first before I committed. This time around, I was able to see the sublime in the novel,” says Ramachandran.
And it was here that the challenge lay for Ramachandran: Conveying that sublimity in English.
“‘Sublime’ is the height of the artistic experience, seldom encountered in the contemporary novels we get to read in English,” she says.
“I thought it was important to translate the book. I tried a couple of chapters, and when I felt I could do justice, I agreed to do it.”
Translating local influences
It took Ramachandran four months to translate the novel. The book is set in Nagercoil, now in Tamil Nadu, but earlier a major urban centre of the erstwhile Travancore state, and part of Kerala till 1956.
As such, Ramachadran says, the language Jeyamohan used has “a strong influence of Malayalam”. “I consulted friends from that region for help with certain words I was unsure of,” she told South First.
As a translator, Ramachandran developed a very deep engagement with the novel, as she wanted to understand why Jeyamohan used particular images and metaphors in various instances.
For instance, the novel “takes a lot of influences” from Siddhar Paadal, a genre of song-poetry practised by wandering mystics known as the Siddars.
It also had original poems composed by the author in that vein.
“Siddhar Paadal has its own language and images,” Ramachandran explains. “So I spent time immersed into that genre; I wanted to understand the language and the worldview before translating those songs.”
Similarly, she “delved into the root meaning and mythology of Murugan”, revered by the Tamil people as being the god of the Tamil language, as “much of the novel takes place in the temple town of Pazhani”, which has a famed temple of Murugan.
“Murugan features quite a lot in the novel, and Pandaram is a devotee of Murugan. Why Murugan, I wondered,” says Ramachandran.
This led to her researching Murugan, and her discovery that that the deity’s name owed its origin to the Tamil word murugu, or beauty.
A host of questions assailed Ramachandran: “Murugan was always invoked as the perfect human form, so what was the author doing, placing this perfect human form amidst beggars, who had indignities heaped upon them precisely because of their imperfect physiology?”
Then again, what does it say about the god? “No wonder the beggars make fun of the god,” says Ramachandran.
“But there again, at Pazhani, the idol also stands in the form of a beggar. So what does that say about the beggars?”
What the novel means to Jeyamohan
After completing her translation, Ramachandran spoke to Jeyamohan to understand the influences behind this novel, and also get an insight into his personal struggles and experiences.
“When he was among the beggars, he never suffered for food, for even a day,” says Ramachandran, recalling her conversation with the author.
“Someone or the other always fed him — religious institutions, eateries with a charitable disposition, householders, fellow beggars.”
And yet, Jeyamohan was “quite depressed” living an unorganised life. “There was a great freedom in that life, he said, but there was nothing ideal or romantic about it.”
A few of the people Jeyamohan got to know in those days were spiritual seekers such as sadhus or sanyasis, Ramachandran says.
“They lived in the same sort of surroundings. They sought that kind of freedom in their lives. There is something shockingly paradoxical about it — that to be completely free, you relinquish all material control over your life. All these strains are there in the novel.”
Jeyamohan wrote the 287-page novel in just seven days, but never read it again. Neither has he read Ramachandran’s translation, he has confessed in recent interviews.
Ramachandran believes this may have to do with his “creative process”.
“I don’t think he re-reads any of his novels. That is because he works at an astonishing pace, finishing 300-500-page novels in a matter of weeks and months. He wrote 26 full-length novels in under six years — that is over four novels a year. So that may not allow time to revisit old novels. He hasn’t read any of his translations either.”
Speaking about The Abyss, Ramachandran says though it is based on the author’s real-life experiences, the novel is not a social document but an enquiry into life at its most extreme positions.
“It makes us re-look at humanity, at ourselves,” she says.
Suchitra Ramachandran holds a PhD in Biological Sciences and currently lives in Basel, Switzerland. In 2017, she published her first translation, B Jeyamohan’s Tamil short story Periyamma’s Words in Asymptote magazine. It won the fiction translation prize for that year. In 2019, she published her first volume of short stories in Tamil, titled “Oli” (Light).
B Jeyamohan, based in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, is a preeminent writer in modern Tamil literature. His most significant work yet is a 26-part roman-fleuve titled “Venmurasu” (The White Drum), a reimagination of the Mahabharata. It spans more than 25,000 pages. He has received many honours, including the Akilan Memorial Prize for his first novel, and the Katha Samman, the Sanskriti Samman and the Iyal Award (Canada) in later years.